It’s that time again, that time I used to dread like a den of rattlesnakes, Halloween. I know, I know, I sound like an old fogy again, or a spoilsport. But this night has always been one I never cared for. I guess in my childhood I must have done something about trick-or-treating, but for the life of me I can’t remember ever donning a costume and going out to knock on doors. My one and only memory of Halloween is a party at the house of one of my parent’s friends, bobbing for apples. That’s it. Just bobbing for apples. That may have been one of the reasons I never cared much for swimming. As I recall, in the old days the night was as much about tricking as treating. It gave nasty little boys the excuse to do really nasty things to the houses of those who had crossed them, neighbors who had banned them from their yards, teachers who had punished them with failing grades, coaches who had overlooked their athletic talents, or simply anyone who had ever looked crosseyed at them. The tricks were usually the soaping of windows, but sometimes they involved toilet paper strewn everywhere through trees and bushes, or eggs thrown against the sides of houses. I always thought I was a good teacher, a popular teacher, but I always feared the egging of my house by kids from Busti, a tiny village south of Lakewood, NY, where I taught, and the youthful vandals of Busti every year would rape and pillage the village square by depositing outhouses there, streaming miles of toilet paper from trees and telephone lines, smashing pumpkins and other smashable vegetables and fruits onto every square inch of the square. Ah, what fun, they must have thought. And now, this night is nearly as much over-commercialized as Christmas, with kids demanding ever more elaborate and expensive costumes, with homeowners buying pounds and pounds of candy to thrust into clutching hands and opened bags, with practically every television show devoting its plot to a Halloween theme, even the comics in the daily newspapers feeling obligated to get into the act. (Garfield today left fang marks in the pizza and sucked up all the tomato sauce.) But tomorrow, as it always does, follows today, and I’ll have a whole year to forget about Halloween. Now I have to get out my Scrooge outfit for Christmas.
Sunday, October 30
What an unusual movie. I went to see Anonymous yesterday and was pleasantly surprised. As an old English teacher, I really wanted to see how London in Elizabethan times looked, or at least how the movie makers would make it look, but even more, I wanted to see The Rose and The Globe theatres. London seemed to be cleaner than I thought it would be; the two theatres were shaped as I knew they were, but I hadn’t realized how close the audience was to the stage and actors. The groundlings (the cheap non-seats) were right there and in several scenes were able to grab an actor and embrace him for his performance. The story was about half and half, half the mystery of who actually wrote the poems and plays ascribed to William Shakespeare, and half the politics surrounding Queen Elizabeth and who should be next in line to the throne when she died. Elizabeth’s advisors, William Cecil and later his hunchback son Robert, provide the movie's villainy. The plot was maybe too flashback-confusing, bouncing back and forth between the young and old Elizabeth and Edward, and the complexities of the political intrigue throughout her reign. The question of the authorship has always intrigued scholars, with Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlow the most frequently suggested alternates to Shakespeare. Here, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is portrayed as the real author, who had to write the plays and poetry anonymously because of the Puritan pressures of the day. He writes, he says, because he has to, he’s driven to it, the words pouring out almost against his Will. (Oh, please forgive me. Like Oxford, I couldn’t help myself.) Vanessa Redgrave played the elder Elizabeth, and played her very well, really bad teeth and all, and her daughter, Joely Richardson, played the younger, very much non-virgin queen. Although the historical points were stretched to implausible lengths, the costumes and the pomp and circumstance of the period made this an enjoyable afternoon for me. The only problem? Too many viewers might think Anonymous depicts reality rather than fiction—that Shakespeare really was only a drunken, illiterate actor; that the Earl of Oxford was the true author of the plays and poetry; that Elizabeth had a number of bastard children, and was even guilty of incest. This wouldn’t be a movie for every taste, but if you enjoy costume drama, you’ll like this one.
Friday, October 28
I must be an old fogy when it comes to music. I just don’t understand or appreciate the stuff young people celebrate today. I watch modern singers and bands performing their hits and I can’t understand what they’re singing. I saw Coldplay perform on The Ellen DeGeneris Show yesterday, the audience going simply wild as the lead singer cavorted around and through the audience, two electric guitars and a drummer behind him wailing and banging away, and I didn’t understand a word he was singing. The performance was good, the music and rhythm was intoxicating, but the lyrics got lost in the volume. Yet this group from England has sold over 50 million albums in the last seven years. That’s a bunch. My not understanding the lyrics is true of nearly everyone else performing now. It isn’t that they’re so metaphysically complicated; I see their lips move but I don’t catch the words. It’s like they’re singing in a foreign language. The emphasis is on visual performance and rhythm instead of lyrics and music. I miss the days when singers got on stage and sang the lyrics of a song, interpreting those lyrics from behind a stationary mike. I miss the clever words of Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Larry Hart. I miss singers like Sinatra, Jack Jones, Vic Damone, Sarah, Ella, and too many more to mention. Barabra is still around and still sounds remarkable, but she’s now old and no longer performing except on rare occasions. Michael Bublé is around and sounds like a modern Sinatra, but he’s consigned pretty much to tours and clubs, labeled a jazz singer and followed only by those of us who still want style and comprehensibility. I just read what I’ve written so far, and I do sound exactly like an old fogy. So be it. I chuckle to think that in forty or fifty years, today’s youth will be wrapped (and rapped) in old fogy garb, yearning for the good old days when their recording artists hipped and hopped and rapped and bedazzled them with outrageous outfits and body paint.
I read a lot of movie reviews, some I trust, some I don’t, some I agree with, some I don’t. Mostly, I use one criterion for determining the gold from the dross—how long I remember the film. As simple as that. I realize that some movies are really gory and might be memorable for the gore without being a great film. I’m reminded of the Halloween series or the yucky films about Jason or Freddy Kreuger--memorable, but for the wrong reasons. And some films are memorable for multiple viewings. But then, why would I watch a movie more than once unless I thought it was pretty good? For example, The Wizard of Oz has been seen by me and nearly everyone else at least a hundred times. Is it memorable? Is it great? You bet, in both cases. Some people (not me, however) have seen Casablanca a hundred times. Is it great? You bet.
Which movies from my past are most memorable? Way back to Gunga Din and Sergeant York. Later, Three Faces of Eve, Singin’ in the Rain, On the Waterfront. All great? Yes. And now, in my seniority, The Reader, (500) Days of Summer, and Up in the Air. And guess what. Those last two just happened to star two people who star in my latest great film, 50/50.
Wednesday, October 26
Tsunami, such a fun word to say, such an ugly phenomenon to consider. On March 11, following a 9.0 earthquake that struck Honshu, the largest island in Japan, devastating coastal cities, moving the entire island some eight feet east, shifting the earth's axis between four and ten inches, tsunami waves estimated as high as 133 feet and rushing six miles inland added to the devastation of the earthquake, killing an estimated 22,000 people, destroying everything in its wake.
And now there seems to be a Sargasso Sea of debris floating across the Pacific toward the Midway Islands, then Hawaii, then the west coasts of Canada and the United States. Talk about flotsam and jetsam. This massive mess consists of between 5 and 20 million tons of appliances, boats, automobiles, furniture, you name it, all the materials that the Japanese people once considered the "stuff" of their lives. Its size is estimated to be about 2,000,000 square miles, or about seven Texases, or about the same size as the Sargasso Sea. And just one Texas is about twice as big as Japan, the place from which this man-made sargassum mess originated. It simply boggles my mind that the debris from the coast of Japan now occupies an area of the Pacific 14 times larger than the entirety of Japan. It doesn’t seem possible. But there it is, measured by those who measure such things. And it’s floating toward us, estimated to reach the U.S. sometime in 2014. None of the accounts I’ve read say anything about what we’ll need to do before that 2014 appointment. Maybe we could construct a two million square mile net, drop it over the stuff, pull it tight, hook it up to several very powerful rockets, then cart the whole thing up and dispose of it in some universal garbage dump. But that doesn’t sound very practical. Maybe we could drop any number of nuclear bombs on it to get the whole thing to sink, then let the ocean bottom worry about it. Nah, not likely. Or maybe there’s nothing we can do. And nothing has been said about the ecological damage this mess will have on the Pacific Ocean. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
Tuesday, October 25
English is a very tricky language. For any non-English speakers who are trying to learn English, the vagaries in spelling and pronunciation of our language must make it nearly incomprehensible. Unlike most of the Romance languages, the pronunciation of which is reliably predictable, English wanders all over the place. Look at the old “tomb, comb, bomb” problem. Why does the value of the “O” change from “oo” to “oh” to “ah?” Why does the “ough” in “tough, trough, through, though” go from “uff” to “off” to “oo” to “oh?” There are, of course, explanations, but those learning our language simply shake their heads and growl at the inconsistencies. And one of the strangest inconsistencies of all is the variety of spellings for the “ʃ” phoneme, partly accounted for by our tendency to borrow words and pronunciations from other languages.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. We tend to make slang expressions permanent, and many of those expressions we make by adding adverbs to our verbs. Try explaining what we mean by "slow down" and "slow up" when both mean the same. Look at "shake up" and "shake down"; "knock off," "knock up," and "knock down"; "show off" and "show down"; "stick up" and "stuck up"; "strike out" and "strike up"; "show off," "show up," and "showdown"; or "chew out" and "shack up." And there's the whole remainder of the ice berg. And all our other slang words. Once we said of a sexy woman that she was hot. Now we say she's cool but she's not cold.
Good luck, English learners, good luck.
Sunday, October 23
It seemed like a good idea when I brought it up to Rosalie, renting a space at the Johnson Rec Center parking lot for the big all-city garage sale yesterday. Fifteen bucks for the space, eight bucks to rent a table. She thought it would be a good way to get rid of some of the baggage we’d acquired in the last several decades. It seemed like such a good idea that she took two days off from work, Friday to get ready and Saturday to go with me to our parking lot space.
We had organized our stuff a week before the sale, Rosalie taking care of all the odds and ends in our cupboards—knick knacks and bud vases and electric juicers and coasters and thermoses, even a crystal punch bowl with eight cups hanging from hooks alongside the bowl, one of my more stupid purchases years ago when we had a cocktail party with too many guests. And a vacuum sweeper we’d replaced with a newer, bigger vacuum. And the two bikes we hadn’t ridden in about ten years. And I organized the many many books I no longer needed (still wanted, but no longer needed) and all the cd’s I’d acquired, no longer needing them because the music they contained was now safely harbored in my computer, and all my excessive golf equipment I no longer needed since my golfing days seem near an end. Friday afternoon I had loaded the car with our long folding table and the card table, and all the boxes of inside stuff and some of the boxes of my books and one of the bikes. The organizing and getting ready was finally at an end, and Friday night was here. And the next day we could get this good idea on the road.
We arose at 4:15, left the house at 5:10 for our 5:15 arrival at the parking lot. Got there in pitch darkness, where a young man directed us to our assigned spot. Unloaded the car. Returned home for another load while Rosalie stayed behind to start arranging our stuff. Loaded a bunch more boxes of books and all my cd’s (about 300), some of the golf stuff, and the other bike. Back to Rosalie. Unloaded. Returned home, but by this time, the 6:30 deadline for cars in the area approached. Somehow I muscled a large, very heavy bookcase into the trunk (the bookcase, lying across two tables, would hold the books), the rest of the books, the rest of the golf stuff, back to unload right at 6:30. Parked the car in the vendor spaces and got back to Rosalie in time to get set up for the 7:00 starting time. All together, there were over a hundred people who had rented spaces for the sale. As the day lightened, I could see tents and large picnic umbrellas going up, tables covered with wares, vendors and early purchasers wandering around, checking out all the stuff everyone had brought to sell. I was surprised to see so many sites with clothes to sell, even one nearby with shoes and used socks. Who in the world would want to buy used shoes, let alone used socks? That’s just one cut above buying used underwear. I shudder to think about anyone wanting to buy either.
The sun rose in a cloudless sky, a breezeless day, temps rising into the high 80’s, the mid-90’s in the sun. Which is where we were for seven hours until we could pack up and come home at 1:00. I had enough sense to wear a hat, but Rosalie was there without, not even sunscreen. It was a long, sunny day.
And it was a long weary day watching people wander up to paw through the books and cd’s, to look at and inquire about the prices on my five sets of irons, my multitude of old drivers and 3-woods and oddball hybrids, all the sleeves of golf balls I’d bought and then tucked away for some future time when I’d need them, the bikes, the vacuum sweeper. I thought at the price I’d set for the books and cd’s, a buck apiece, that I’d have lots of people realizing what a good deal that was, especially for the cd’s. Wrong. Most bought from one to five. Only one guy was smart enough to find 21 cd’s he wanted. A lady asked if I had any Elvis and I told her I thought the day the music died was the day Elvis first stepped on stage. Oh, my, was she incensed.
As the day wore on, we kept dropping the prices on nearly everything. The bikes and vacuum went for $15 apiece, one of the iron sets for $30, the glassware and knickknacks went for about a penny on the dollar. I’d forgotten how little either of us liked to engage in haggling. And it seemed that nobody wanted anything they couldn’t get for practically nothing.
Finally, 1:00 came limping in and we were able to pack up and bring home more than half of what we’d taken. And we were hot, and dirty, and more weary than either of us had felt for a very long time. We sat on the patio, panting, heaving sighs of exhaustion, shaking our heads. We counted the money. About $400 on stuff that was originally worth well over $5,000. That came to about eight cents on the dollar.
It had NOT been a good day, it had NOT been a good idea. Why must we learn life’s lessons only after it's too late? We took hot showers to cleanse ourselves of the grit from our labors, to cleanse ourselves of the psychic grit from selling ourselves like whores on a midnight street corner. And we swore to each other that we would never again engage in a garage sale. Never, never, never. NEVER!
Friday, October 21
Cyber bullying is the latest cry from all kinds of different directions. And I can appreciate how tragic this kind of behavior can be, with young boys and girls being outed and taunted by way of the Internet, causing some to commit suicide. When will such cruelty end? I think back to my youth and try to remember what then might have constituted bullying. Most of it was physical, anything to cause pain in someone weaker than the bully and without leaving marks. The old wedgie that many laughed at as a prank against someone weaker. Funny? I don’t think so. Tickling someone who is ticklish is cruel, especially when the tickling goes on and on, until the victim is crying. And it doesn’t leave a physical mark. Goosing someone who is goosey is cruel, and it doesn’t leave a mark. Twisting an ear, or finger-flicking a nose, or the old nipple pinch, or the double-handed twist of flesh on the lower arm, none of which leaves a mark. Then there’s the punching to the stomach or the upper arm, painful but not leaving much of a mark. The old version of psychological bullying always involved laughter, derision. Mocking someone shorter than normal, calling them shorty or stump or midget or mouse. Mocking someone overweight, calling them tubby or fatso or lardass. Mocking young people not certain of their sexual orientation, calling them fag or faggot or queer. Mocking anyone less attractive than their attackers, calling them Frankenstein or big-nose or crosseyes or elly-ears. Mocking anyone less intelligent than their attackers, calling them stupid or dumbo or dum-dum. And frightening anyone who is easily frightened is as much bullying as any of the other forms. Ellen DeGeneris, hear me when I say you must have a cruel streak when you take such enjoyment out of frightening Amy or any of your guests. Ellen, you’re a bully.
Thursday, October 20
My tank seems to be on empty right now. Just nothing much to write about in a universe of possible topics. And I can’t think of anything worth my effort. I could tap into the Occupy Wall Street protests, but I can’t figure out exactly what they’re hoping to accomplish. I know one of the rallying cries has to do with the uneven distribution of wealth. I just pulled a statistic which, if true, is mind-blowing: The top 1 percent earn more income than the bottom 50 percent, and the richest 400 Americans own more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans. Let’s see if I have the math right. One percent of 600 million citizens = 6 million, who earn more annually than 300 million. And 400 of those 6 million rich guys have more money than the bottom 150 million of our low-income, impoverished, destitute citizens. Something seems to be wackily out of wack. How can that imbalance be balanced, at least somewhat? Eliminate all tax loopholes the rich now use; increase the taxes on these wealthiest of people; eliminate the ridiculous lifelong salaries and pensions of our congresspeople. The republicans are so vehemently opposed to any tax increases on the wealthy that that fix won’t happen. But without raising taxes, we could at least eliminate all the snakeholes these wealthy people use through their snakehole lawyers. And as for our senators and congresspeople agreeing to give up their preposterous pensions, whoa, that isn’t likely to happen.
Ahh, I just thought of something happier than the state of our economy. In the past I’ve banged the drum for Taylor Swift, but now I have to do it again. She was on Ellen yesterday, her fifth or sixth time on the show, this time not singing but just for an interview with Ellen. When I say “bang the drum” I mean sing her praises. I predicted several months ago that she would one day be as big a star as Barbra, in singing, yes, but mainly as an actress. So, I’ll say it again. Watch out for this one. Compared to too many of the singing sensations of the day, like Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga and Beyonce and that lackluster squad of rappers we see too often, she is so refreshingly honest and modest and unassuming about her success as a singer. And so poised for her age, only twenty-one, without a hint of ego. I hope I live long enough to witness the success she’s bound to have.
Wednesday, October 19
About twenty years ago, when we were living in an old house in upstate New York, something unusual happened to us. It was late fall, somewhere in late October. And I almost immediately wrote a story about it, one most suitable for Halloween. I hope you like it. I hope you're not arachnophobic.
"Oh, oh, oh! Ohhh!” my wife moaned, the oh’s rising in pitch and volume. She came bursting out of the bathroom to stand in front of me in our bedroom, her hands making little fluttering motions in front of her face, terror in her eyes. She’d been about to brush her teeth before coming to bed, and she still had the brush clutched in her right hand.
“What? What?” I asked, thinking maybe she’d stepped on the scale and been horrified by the numbers.
“There’s a HUGE spider in there! Oooo!” she said with a shudder that started at her hunched shoulders and ended in a flutter of cheeks. “I just hate spiders!”
My wife’s no coward. She’s lived long enough to know that practically nothing we fear as children ever really comes to pass or is nearly as life-threatening as we’d imagined in that child’s world when we had to look up at everyone and everything. But spiders were horrors of a different color. Logic and reason didn’t stand a chance.
Here we go again, I thought. The old “Get the Tissue and Squish the Big Bad Spider” routine. Probably a daddy-longlegs and Miss Muffet’s spazzing out. Big deal.
I went in the bathroom and followed her quavery directions from where she stood just outside the door. “He’s right up in the corner by the medicine chest,” she said. I looked up in the corner by the medicine chest. There he was all right. Just sitting up there in the corner by the medicine chest. Just staring back at me, all six or eight or however many eyes spiders have just staring back at me. No daddy-longlegs, not this fella.
Okay, I thought. Guess I’ll go get a paper towel or two. Go out to the kitchen and get some paper towels. Tissue won’t do. No Siree, this was going to take something a little tougher. So I went to the kitchen, my legs feeling strangely like rubber, my wife right on my heels. I pulled one, two, . . . three paper towels off the roll and then went slowly back to the bathroom, my wife hanging back a bit. Odd how fast my heart was thumping. I peeked around the door casing and looked up in the corner. No spider. Where’d he go? I couldn’t have just imagined him, could I? No, not if both of us saw him. Besides, he was too big to imagine.
You have to understand, he wasn’t easy to overlook. When my wife said a huge spider, she wasn’t kidding. This sucker was big. I mean BIG, reaaaly BIG. When I first saw him up in the corner by the cabinet, me staring at him, him staring back at me, I felt that lump in my throat, the one writers are always writing about but which I’d never experienced firsthand and never really believed. The writers were quite accurate. It did feel like a lump as my throat constricted.
He was brown. His body was a figure-eight about as long as half my little finger. He must have had some kind of markings along the body, but I was too numb to notice. His legs were long, but not the little threadlike stilts of a daddy-longlegs. Oh no, these were the legs of a spider iron-pumper or NFL linebacker--heavy, thick legs like thorns. And my mind sort of glazed over as we stared at each other.
“WelI, I don’t see him now,” I said somewhat uneasily. “We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”
I coaxed my wife toward the bathroom pushing her gently in the back.
“I don’t really need to brush my teeth,” she whined.
“Oh come on now. Brush your teeth. He’s gone.”
I returned to the bedroom and she went slowly in the bathroom, her eyes, I’m quite sure, wide open.
About ten seconds later, “Oooooooh!” she moaned in a rising quaver. “He’s here!”
I went around her as she was backing out of the bathroom pointing at the medicine chest. “He’s . . . he’s in . . . in between the . . . the . . . the . . .” (She couldn’t seem to get enough air) “the wall and the cabinet,” she finished in a rush.
I leaned forward from the waist and looked along the wall and into the crack between the wall and the medicine chest. Brown legs hooked around the edge of the cabinet near the middle hinge. Big brown legs. Hmmm, I thought. Tissues were always out of the question. And paper towels no longer seem up to the task. Maybe a gunnysack . . . or a whip and a chair.
“Don’t we have some insecticide under the kitchen sink?” my wife asked from outside the door.
“Yes, I think so. That sounds good. Uh huh.” I went quickly to the kitchen, my wife a tight shadow behind me. I rummaged around among the furniture polish and half-empty bottles of ammonia cleaner until I found the can. It felt uncomfortably light, but I shook it and it sounded like there was enough for the task. We returned to the bathroom armed for battle. My wife didn’t come in with me.
Uh huh, good, I thought. Legs still there. I directed the nozzle at them and pressed the button. No spray, just a thin line of insecticide that splashed weakly along the wall and cabinet near the legs.
Legs vanish. Almost immediately the spider is above the cabinet and pressed in the corner where walls join ceiling. Some part of my mind uneasily registers the fact that he appeared above the cabinet in Olympic time--the Carl Lewis of spiderdom. I direct the thread of insecticide at him and immediately he’s over the mirror above the counter. I shoot again. He drops to the counter.
Ah hah! I gloat to myself. He’s groggy! Oops! Wrong! Both thoughts almost simultaneous. With no perceptible pause (and certainly no grogginess), he zips to the counter edge, plummets to the floor near my feet, and before my foot can even begin to react with a stamp he zooms to the heat vent in the corner and disappears therein. I bend and direct the stream of insecticide generously into the vent and hear the scrabbling of his legs on the metal duct as he speeds away. Then nothing.
I crouched there, breathing like a sprinter, the skin tight across my cheeks, my mind casting back over what I’d just seen. I was stunned, amazed at the speed he’d demonstrated, appalled by what gave every appearance of animal cunning, a malevolence that seemed almost human. He knew exactly where he was going from the moment he dropped to the counter and then to the floor, and he got there in a flash.
I flipped the lever on the vent, and the metal louvers snapped satisfyingly shut.
“Did you get him?” my wife asked from somewhere outside the door.
“Well . . . not exactly.”
“What does that mean, ‘not exactly?’ You either got him or you didn’t. Which is it? Which?” I could hear a rising panic in that last which, a kind of unreasoning anger at my spider incompetence.
“Uh,” I began, trying to be casual. “Uh . . . he went down the vent in the floor.”
Silence from the hall. A five second pause. “You didn’t get him,” she said flatly. Another pause. “Well, did he act like he was dying, or sick, or, or slow . . . when he went down the vent?”
“Noooo, I’d say he was going pretty fast when I last saw him, heard him.”
Silence again. I could imagine her out there thinking about what I’d just told her. And I, along with her, explored the possibilities. I followed in my mind the vent pipe as it went down from the bathroom floor and then bent to run along the basement ceiling toward the furnace, two other pipes right-angling off, one to the kitchen, one to the dining room, the furnace itself having a number of other main arteries running to other rooms. Our early fall weather hadn’t yet required the furnace, so heat wouldn’t impede him.
“Don’t you think you should--”
“Oh boy, yes!” I said, cutting her off. I left the bathroom and made a hurried trip through the house shutting all the vents, my wife right on my heels.
But the burning question: Had I shut them all before he’d exited somewhere? He was fast, oh my, was he ever fast. Nahh, I thought without much conviction. He has to be either dead, dying, or one very sick spider. Doesn’t he? Yeah, certainly, I said to myself, not at all certain.
The next day I went to the library to try to discover what sort of beast we had lurking in our heating system. I mean, one of the most important elements of warfare is to know the enemy. And this was, as far as I was concerned, war.
I learned: that most spiders are web spinners, or at least use their silk mainly to capture prey; that all spiders are venomous, but in the temperate zones not to a degree dangerous to man with the exception of the small brown violin spider and the black widow, and even these two cause death in less than 5% of the people bitten (Why did I find 5% not a very reassuring statistic?); that spiders are not insects at all but of the order Arachnida, another member of which is the scorpion (Why was I not reassured by the fact that I sprayed insecticide on a non-insect?); that there is a small group of spiders, the genus Lycosa (Greek for “wolf”), called hunters, which rely on speed to capture prey, the best known member of which is the tarantula (Why was I not reassured by the fact that a possible cousin of my foe was a tarantula?); that the picture of one such hunter, looking remarkably like our tenant, was called a Brazilian wolf spider.
At that point my mind froze with all the implications: Brazilian? Not a creature of temperate zones then, and therefore potentially hazardous to my and my wife’s health. How did he get here? On a banana boat? And nowhere in the literature did it ever say that hunters and wolf spiders live anywhere but outside in nature. So why did this one choose to live in a house, especially my house? And what if he’s not dead? And in only a short while the weather could change and the temperature drop, and we’ll have to turn on our furnace and open the vents . . . or freeze to death . . . or move.
And what if the insecticide not only didn’t kill him or make him sick, but only made him angry? And what if, as I was staring at him, he was staring at me and etching my features in his lupine mind? And what if a Brazilian wolf spider has the memory of an elephant?
And what if he’s not a he, but a she, and she’s going to have babies? Hundreds of babies. And she raises them all with a vengeance?
I have to learn more, find a bigger book, one that’s all about wolf spiders. Because every night now, all night long, I hear her howling in my dreams, howling in my heart, howling in my heat vents . . . and it’s nearing the end of October.
Tuesday, October 18
Finally, we come to the noun s-v-o, a word group that can be used anywhere a noun shows up, as S’s or O’s. The most commonly used signal words for noun s-v-o’s are that, who, how, if, what, when, where, and why, with that used most often. Others, used less often, include because, whatever, wherever, whether, which, whichever, whoever, whom, whomever, and whose. This that (the shortened “thut”) is strictly a connector, not part of the pattern it signals, and can often be dropped out of the sentence. For example, “I know that he did it” can become “I know he did it.” There’s a group of V’s related to mental or speaking processes (know, believe, say, remember, dream, ask, etc.) that often take a noun s-v-o as the O, as in “I know why he did it. I asked how she knew my name. I remembered where I saw her.” Isn’t this fun? Okay, here are some examples of typical noun s-v-o’s.
And one more use of the noun s-v-o that's a little hard to spot, when it's used as a restrictive appositive that's not set off in commas. For example, "The idea that he could do such a thing is ridiculous." See, "that he could do such a thing" is the idea, just restated as an appositive. Probably a better way to say it is to make it the subject and get rid of "the idea." "That he could do such a thing is ridiculous." You'll notice that in this case the signal word that can't be dropped from the sentence. There, so much for that.
Here’s another challenge sentence. I’ll give you the pattern and you can figure out what the sentence is doing.
"Later, when he returned from wherever he’d gone, I asked him if he knew who broke the right headlight on my car."
That makes up about 98% of the possibilities. The other 2% consist of reversals, like questions, and the expletive intro words, there is and there are and the empty it.
That's it. That's all there is. If there's anyone out there following these segments on sentence structure, either out of curiosity or a desire to know more about your own writing, I encourage you to go to Lulu.com to buy one of my e-books called ES3. There's a lot more there than I was able to include in this blog. And if you're sincere about improving your own writing, you simply need to practice with the structural units available to you, become more aware of the possible arrangements and rearrangements of the s-v-o’s, 1-o’s, 2-o’s, 3-o’s, and 4’s in your own writing and take notice of the stylistic tricks of professional writers. You can now work at varying the kinds of patterns you use, varying the length and complexity of your sentences. You can write short, simple sentences. Or you can write longer sentences by building up layers of added information that make your ideas more and more specific as you continue to add to your sentences. By using the important but often overlooked front position, you can get away from always beginning your sentences with the S. You can add weight to your sentences by employing similar units in a series, keeping each unit in the series parallel in structure, stacking up ideas one after the other. Just remember that English sentences are made up of simple, easy-to-use word units. The sentences themselves can be as unique as you care to make them, thanks to the infinite number of combinations of these few types of structural units.
Has it been fun being in my on-line classroom?
Monday, October 17
Like any other adverb, the adverb s-v-o bounces around in a sentence, usually front and back, but it can, usually set off in commas, come in the interior as well. For example, “Whenever the weather gets too hot, we drive to Flagstaff to cool off.” “We drive to Flagstaff to cool off whenever the weather gets too hot.” “We drive to Flagstaff, whenever the weather gets too hot, to cool off.” “We drive, whenever the weather gets too hot, to Flagstaff to cool off.” The signal word, called a subordinating conjunction, shows the relationship of the s-v-o to the main verb, telling, like any other good little adverb, when, where, why, how, under what conditions, and to what extent. And unlike the adjective s-v-o signal word, which most often acts as part of the pattern, the adverb s-v-o signal word most often isn’t part of the pattern, acting only as a connector. There are about thirty of these signals, some of which can also be used as prepositions; it all depends on what sort of word structure follows it. For example, “After we left the gym, we went home.” “After school, we went home.” The first after is a subordinating conjunction; the second after is a preposition. The adverb s-v-o is the most unusual of all the structures, with a crazy number of oddball connections to the word or words it’s describing. Enough of this introductory chitchat, now you can look at some sentences and patterns.
That was the easy stuff. Now let me show you some of the crazy things this adverb s-v-o can do. Sometimes the signal word can be part of the pattern, sometimes the signal word simply disappears, sometimes the signal words get just plain wacky. How about a little police scenario.
Saturday, October 15
I usually don't like to pass on jokes I get over the Internet, but this one is too good to skip. Thanks, Larry.
Four old retired guys are walking down a street near NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina. They turn a corner and see a sign that says, “Old Timers Bar--ALL drinks 10 cents.” They look at each other and then go in, thinking, This is too good to be true.
The old bartender says in a voice that carries across the room, “Good afternoon–glad you came in. What'll it be, gentlemen?"
There's a fully stocked bar, so each of the men orders a martini. In no time the bartender serves up four iced martinis—shaken, not stirred—and says, "That'll be 10 cents each, please."
The four guys stare at the bartender for a moment, then at each other. They can't believe their good luck.
They pay the 40 cents, finish their martinis, and order another round. Again, four excellent martinis are produced, with the bartender again saying, "That's 40 cents, please." They pay the 40 cents, but their curiosity gets the better of them. They've each had two martinis and haven't yet even spent a dollar.
Finally one of them says, "How can you afford to serve martinis as good as these for a dime apiece?"
"I'm a retired tailor from Charlotte," the bartender says, “and I always wanted to own a bar. Last year I hit the Lottery jackpot for $125 million and decided to open this place. Every drink costs a dime. Wine, liquor, beer—it's all the same."
"Wow! That's some story!" one of the men says.
As the four of them sip at their martinis, they can't help noticing seven other people at the end of the bar who don't have any drinks in front of them and haven't ordered anything the whole time they've been there.
Nodding at the seven at the end of the bar, one of the men asks the bartender, "What's with them?"
The bartender says, "They're retired people from Florida. They're waiting for Happy Hour when drinks are half-price."
How true, how true.
Some more about grammar and grammarians. In the past, stodgy traditional grammarians would warn students about the things they shouldn't do in their writing: never split infinitives, never end a sentence with a preposition, never write as a sentence something that doesn't have at least a subject and verb, and never begin a sentence with "and" or "but." I'm telling you now that that's all a bunch of hooey. To split an infinitive is to insert one or more adverbs between the "to" and the verb. For example, "I told him to never leave the house without a jacket." See, the "never' split the infinitive, and it might be better not to do it unless it's necessary, thus you'd have, "I told him never to leave the house without a jacket." But then there are instances where there's no other place to put the adverb without ambiguity. For example, "Provisions are made to immediately isolate students suspected of carrying contagious diseases." It's either ambiguous or awkward to put "immediately" anywhere else. Another example from a newpaper headline: "Fad Toys Said to Often Bore Children." Again, either ambiguous or awkward. So much for splitting infinitives. Don't do it if you don't have to; do it if you have to.
Then there's the old dictum against ending a sentence with a preposition. Winston Churchill had this to say about it: "This is a form of pedantry up with which I will not put." So, if you must end with a preposition, go ahead. "Now there's a woman who's good to look at." A perfectly acceptable sentence. But to avoid the final "at," you'd have "Now there's a woman who's good at whom to look." Yuck! Suddenly she's ugly. As for never writing a sentence as a sentence without at least a noun and verb, I just did when I said, "A perfectly acceptable sentence." That's acceptable. And as for never beginning a sentence with "and" or "but," I just did. But it's still acceptable.
Friday, October 14
The adjective s-v-o is, as you might suspect, a word group acting as an adjective, and, like the adjective 1-o, comes right after the noun it’s describing. And, since nouns can show up in lots of places, you can find adjective s-v-o’s in lots of places. First, the simplest place, right after the S. “Anyone who owns a bike can enter the race.” Two things to note: First, the signal word “who” is called a relative pronoun because it shows the relationship between the word group it introduces and the word it’s describing; and second, “who” and “whom” are the two most frequently used signal words. Most people don’t use “whom” because they either don’t know when it should be used or they think it sounds too formally phony, sort of a look-down-the-nose Britishism. Let me show you the ways we get around the who/whom problem. “The people with whom we traveled to Canada own a home in Florida.” “The people whom we traveled to Canada with own a home in Florida.” “The people that we traveled to Canada with own a home in Florida.” “The people we traveled to Canada with own a home in Florida.” Note the movement from formal to informal, the last one being the most informal. Note also that “that” is a useful signal word because it can stand for either “who” or “whom,” thus sidestepping the question of which is correct. Simple, right? The signal words for the adjective s-v-o are who, whom, which, that, when, where, and whose. Another consideration: This word group can be included in the sentence with or without commas, depending on whether it’s necessary in the sentence or is only added information. For example, “Anyone who owns a bike can enter the race,” and “Jim Clark, who owns an expensive racing bike, entered the race.” In the first sentence, the adjective s-v-o is necessary to point out which “anyone” can enter the race. In the second sentence, the adjective s-v-o is merely adding information about Jim Clark, but isn’t necessary to the meaning of the main S-V-O. For ardent grammarians, these are called restrictive and non-restrictive adjective clauses, restrictive meaning necessary and non-restrictive meaning unnecessary. Now, you can forget all the grammatical terminology and just get on with it. Here are some examples of the ways this word unit can be used.
That most useful signal word “that” is pronounced differently than the “that” used as a regular pronoun or a demonstrative adjective. Whew! There we are again with the gobbledygook. Look how the pronunciation changes depending on how it’s used. “That book is mine. I don’t like that.” In both cases it rhymes with “hat.” “I know someone that can do it.” This one rhymes with a really short “thut.” Say the following sentence out loud and you’ll hear the difference: “I hate the book that that man just bought.” Did you hear it? The shortened “that” is the one we use so often that signals an adjective s-v-o. Okay, and soon we’ll be on to the adverb s-v-o. Exciting.
The appositive is a really useful tool for inserting information about a noun. It doesn’t complicate the sentence except when it gets extended with modifying elements. One simply tucks identifying stuff inside enclosing commas, placing it most often right after the noun it’s describing. Anywhere a noun appears in your sentence, you could insert an appositive. And we use nouns all over the place. In my system, I identify appositives by putting them in parentheses, the same as with understood words and phrases. Some examples:
Sometimes, if you insert a really long appositive, as with a series, one or more of the items in the series using commas, you can no longer use commas to set off the series of appositives. If they come somewhere in the middle of the sentence, you can use paired dashes instead of commas, and then use semi-colons instead of commas on the interior. For example, "Several television series--The Mentalist, with the many Red John twists; The Good Wife, with all those sleazy lawyer shenanigans; NCIS, with way too many overlapping conflicts; and CSI, with yet another new head of the unit (Ted Danson)--seem to be staying afloat among a seaful of ships sinking in mediocrity." If they come at the end of the sentence, you can introduce them with a colon. For example, "Three important film stars came out in favor of the judicial proposal: Barbra Streisand, who supported Clinton; Marty Sheen, who supports any Democrat in office; and Clint Eastwood, who should know better than to support anyone Streisand and Sheen support."
I'll show you some more aspects of the appositive after you see the noun s-v-o. Can't wait, can you.
Thursday, October 13
I don’t know if it’s just me getting grumpier and grumpier as the years go by or if in fact this season’s television is all pretty bad. Or I might, as “Cantanker,” join the seven dwarves. More and more, I’d rather skip the tube and just read. About half the offerings on prime time are reality shows, and, other than So You Think You Can Dance, I’m not a fan of reality stuff. How many Survivors do we need? How many Amazing Races? How many shows devoted to obese people trying to lose weight? And all the Real Housewives from one city or another, and all the Kardashians, and angry chefs, and X Factors. Who the hell needs ‘em?
I really wanted to love Terra Nova, with its sci-fi premise of time travel and all the possibilities of life among the dinosaurs, but unless it steps up its game, they’re going to lose me. All that money Spielberg and others put out to make this show, and so far it’s just a second-hand Lost. Maybe even a third-hand. And why did they decide to cast Australians for half the cast? These people are supposedly smoggy Chicagoans but they derive from Down Under. What’s with that? And the dinos aren’t even close to Jurassic Park standards. Ah, well, the set is pretty.
Last Man Standing was funny, but the man standing was just an older Tim the Toolman. And after three episodes of Two-and-a-Half Men, we’ve decided they're down to only half a man and we don’t need to see any more. A Gifted Man doesn’t have any gifts at all, and it, like Pan Am, Charlie’s Angels, and The Playboy Club (already canceled) will soon be gone with the wind.
The Vast Wasteland, much vaster now in 2011, is back.
Wednesday, October 12
Here I am again, whether you like it or not. This time with the 4, what is grammatically called the past participle. And, again, now you can forget this bit of gobbledygook. It’s the form of the verb that usually ends in –ed or has some other ending or internal pronunciation change. It’s the form that, as part of a main V, follows have. It’s used as an adjective and sometimes as an adverb. The 4 almost never takes an o, almost always works with 1-o’s. I say "almost never" because in only a few cases can it actually take an object. Here’s one such case: “Shown the truth, he apologized.” A few others: granted his wish, taught the lesson, given the prize, refused shelter, etc. Most of them sound awkward and are seldom used, even though they’re structurally acceptable.
When the 4 is in the usual adjective position, right in front of a noun, I ignore it because it doesn’t complicate the structure any more than any other adjective in the front position: “the broken window,” “his paid vacation,” “the dried leaves.” But in the following cases, I’d designate it as a 4: “We repaired the window broken in the storm.” “He accepted the money paid through his insurance policy.” “She raked up the leaves dried by the autumn wind.” When it describes the S, it can be an introductory phrase or it can come after the S, either enclosed or not enclosed in commas. And sometimes, it can even bring up the rear as long as there’s no other noun it could refer to. And finally, it can sometimes take on an adverbial flavor. Examples, with patterns first followed by the sentences:
One other symbol I have to include just to account for everything. Sometimes a pure adjective can be used just like a 4, but since it doesn’t originate from a verb, I call it a 4a. “Cold and weary, the boys trudged home from their campout.”
That’s it. Next comes the appositive and the s-v-o’s. And aren’t you looking forward to that?
One last note about the art of writing. Young children and semi-illiterate writers will frame their writing in little bits of information, in simple main clauses, each one a sentence, one right after another. “I went to school this morning. I had two classes before lunch. The classes weren’t my favorites. For lunch I had soup and a sandwich. The soup was tomato. The sandwich was chicken salad.” Better, but still not very brilliant, “This morning I went to two of my least favorite classes, after which for lunch I had tomato soup and a chicken salad sandwich.”
Tuesday, October 11
The whole point of these discussions of sentence structure is to demonstrate the simplicity of English sentences when we get rid of all the grammatical gobbledygook. There are really only a few terms I need and those are readily understandable to almost everyone: noun, subject, object, adjective, adverb, preposition, and appositive. All the rest can go in the garbage can.
Grammatically, the 3 is a present participle. There, you can ignore those words from now on. A 3 is the form of the verb that ends in –ing. Mnemonically you can think of those three letters as signifying the 3. The 3 can be either a noun or an adjective, and often you’ll see it as part of a main verb, but in that case I don’t consider it a 3. For example, “Learning my system is easy.” The 3-o, “learning my system,” is the subject of the main clause. “The number designating a present participle is a 3.” The 3-o, “designating a present participle,” is an adjective describing “number.” “The 3-o is being used as an adjective.” Here, “being” is just part of the main verb and wouldn’t be considered a 3. To complicate it a bit, the 3 can take its own object, can be described by 1-o’s acting adverbially, can, like the 2, also have its own subject. Examples, with patterns followed by sentences:
You may be wondering what an S - V - S pattern is all about. That second S is grammatically either a predicate noun or a predicate adjective (more gobbledygook). It’s a word that either renames the subject or describes it and is linked to the subject by what we call a linking verb (catchy name, huh?). Most linking verbs are forms of “be” but there are quite a few others that work the same way: seem, appear, feel, look, smell, taste, and a host of other less common. For example: I’m a teacher. I’m old. I feel good. You seem surprised. You appear dubious. You look angry. This chicken smells bad. And it tastes bad. I keep busy. I stay happy. Nearly all of these patterns are way too simple to use very often and should be avoided whenever possible.
That’s enough for today. Some of you must be wondering when I’ll get off this drivel. I’m not going to. And if you don’t like it, I don’t care. So there. See you tomorrow with the 4.
Monday, October 10
The 2 is an infinitive, that basic form of the verb preceded by its signal word “to.” Mnemonically, it consists of two words, one of which is a homonym, to/two. Don’t mistake this “to” for the word I’m calling a 1. They’re two different words. The 2 can, like any other verb form, have an object, or it can be modified by 1-o’s and adverbs and adverb s-v-o’s. It’s used as a noun, adjective, or adverb. It can even be part of a main verb, but then I don’t consider it a 2 anymore.
First the patterns, then the sentences that go with them:
Most often, the 2 is really pretty simple, although, as in much of English sentence structure, it can be a little sticky at times. Sometimes it can “lose” its signal “to” but like other understood words in a sentence, it’s really still there. This happens most often when the 2 is dragging along its own subject, in a kind of verbal noun clause. For example, “We watched him steal the diamond bracelet.” The entire thing we watched was “him steal the diamond bracelet.” And that word group, acting like the noun object of watched, is an s - 2 - o, with the sign of the 2 understood, “him (to) steal the bracelet.” Notice, in a similar sentence, how the “to” shows up again: “We wanted him to steal the diamond bracelet.” It all depends on the nature of the main V.
Okay, enough for the 2 and all its little idioticsyncrasies. Keep your eyes peeled for examples in magazines and newspapers, and even in your own writing. And I’ll see you tomorrow to thrill you with the characteristics of the 3. Whoopie.
Sunday, October 9
Nothing much to write about today. It’s a sunny but chilly Sunday in Arizona, a cold wind blowing through the arbor vitae in back, reminding me of northern autumns I used to dread, the dying of the year, the beginning of another school year with too many apathetic students ignoring me, chatting away through what I considered important lessons about literature and writing skills. I guess that feeling was present only in my final five years of teaching. I’d always thought I’d continue teaching into my seventies, always believing I had important things to say to my students, believing their enthusiasm would keep me young forever. I was wrong, and I decided to leave when I was only sixty, taking my retirement benefits with me to Arizona, breathing a deep sigh over what I was leaving behind. That was eighteen years ago and I still regret not being able to use what I know about important concepts, like great writers who said great things, said them in great ways. I’ve always thought it cruelly ironic that when we get really good at something, it’s time to give it up to wait for death. Just one of the cosmos’ cruel practical jokes. But that’s enough about regrets.
It’s Sunday. The Diamondbacks lost a heartbreaker in their final game against the Milwaukee Brewers. But what a great run they made of the season. And the Cardinals today have a chance to get to 2-3 if they can beat the winless Vikings. And Tiger is looking all right in the Frys.com Open this week, not the old great he used to be, but all right. He now has a balky driver and a balky putter, but the game in between still looks good. I so hope he can pull it back before I die (there I go again, with morbid thoughts of death). I want to be able to rub it into all those who so want him to fail. They say he’s too cocky (no pun intended), immoral (and this in an age of immorality), grabbing too much of the media attention (as though he’s the one who dictates who the media should focus on). Actually, they simply hate him for the color of his skin. We still live in an age of racial prejudice although it’s receding like a bad dream. Every generation that dies away allows the next generation to reduce racial animosity until one day no one will even think about it. Phillip Wylie once said he looked forward to a time when we’re all the same tan color. I guess I do too. But that’s still a number of generations away, and I’ll be long gone by then. Okay, it’s Sunday. Go, Cardinals.
Saturday, October 8
I seem to have aged several decades in the last two years. I’ve always felt I was a fairly healthy person, a bit overweight but not excessively so, a pretty good athlete in my youth, a low-handicap golfer for most of my life. But these last two years have demonstrated just how fickle health can be. I now hobble around like an old fellow who, any day now, might need a walker or cane. My legs refuse to heal from a bout of psoriasis and a radiation wound the bandages of which I change daily. And purple splotches that appear on my arms like belladonna blossoms, then recede like autumn leaves. I’d always associated such marks as signs of very advanced age and near-death illness. And now I recognize it in me. Damn! And I keep seeing the Green Ripper in my rearview mirror . . . and he’s catching up.
I need to lighten the mood here. If there are such things as daddylonglegs, aren’t there also mommylonglegs, and kiddylonglegs, and even mommy-in-lawlonglegs? Yes, and here's a whole village of them.
“You’ll never be alone with me.” Love that ambiguity: it can mean you’ll always have me to keep you company, or under no circumstances will you ever find yourself alone with me—two considerably different meanings.
Those damned borrowers. Almost a month ago I lost a Black Hills gold ring. It was on a ring holder on my desk, and then, suddenly, it wasn’t there. I must have knocked over the holder (a wooden hand with middle finger extended) and the ring unnoticed somehow got tangled up in papers on my desk, papers that I then threw away. My wife Rosalie and I searched everywhere. Took everything off my desk, looked in every chair cushion, went through trash and old papers, looked in places a ring couldn’t possibly have been but looked anyway. No ring. So I accepted the loss, but grudgingly. I had bought it in a South Dakota pawnshop for $60 and later found out it was worth nearly $500, a man’s wedding band, the top half with gold leaves on a black background. And it was beautiful. And now it was gone, gone to those damned borrowers who dwell in everyone’s houses, gone with all those single socks, gone with padlock keys, gold pens, important papers. Gone. Then today I pulled a piece of Scotch tape from the tape holder, and lo and behold, under the roll was a gold ring. I felt like Smeagol, washing my hands, murmuring, “Ah, my precious.”
Friday, October 7
Forgive me for writing so much about sentence structure. My system is just too useful to let it disappear forever. If anyone out there knows an English teacher or two, please have them check in with me. Maybe they’ll be attracted to it and use it in their classrooms. The whole thing is available at http://www.lulu.com as an e-book for $2.99.
How about a quickie explanation of the 1-o.
What I’m calling a 1 is grammatically a preposition (pre-position, a word that comes in front of a noun). These are those tiny words we use over and over again in our language, use more than nearly any other language, about sixty total. Some of them consist of more than one word working together (“because of,” “instead of,” “out of”); seven of them make up about 90% of the ones we use: of, for, in, to, at, on, with. They’re used as adjectives and adverbs. As an adjective, they always (or should always) come right after the noun they describe; as an adverb, they can float around in the sentence, telling why, when, where, how, or under what conditions something happens, pointing to v’s and verbals (2’s, 3’s, and 4's). When I say “float,” I mean that with a main V, the 1-o can be near that V or it can begin the sentence or end it. For example, “Charlie had indigestion after breakfast.” “After breakfast, Charlie had indigestion.” “Charlie, after breakfast, had indigestion.” You can even force it in between the V and the O, but that’s the least promising location for it. “Charlie had, after breakfast, indigestion.” Poor Charlie. The 1 can have more than one o. “Charlie had a huge breakfast of eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, sausage, grits, biscuits, and gravy.” Poor, dumb Charlie. Quite often, 1-o’s will work in tandem, one tumbling after another, each one describing the o of the one in front. “I just met the new manager of the bank on the corner of Fifth and Jackson.” See, three 1-o’s in a row. The pattern would look like this:
The 1-o can also work with 2’s, 3’s, and 4,’s. For example, 1. “Charlie bought a chicken to cook on his patio.” 2. “A man standing beside him also bought one.” 3. “Charlie, lost in thought, forget his change.” Here are the three patterns:
That’s enough for now. Hope I haven’t put anyone to sleep. Hope Charlie doesn’t gain too much weight.
Thursday, October 6
One of the positions for sentence ideas is the front, before the subject. Many writers tend to ignore this possibility and write main ideas first, then add information in a kind of descending staircase, giving the reader the impression that they’re sliding down a hill, or down a banister, a lot like this sentence just concluding. Of the possible introductory units—1-o, 2, 3, 4, 4a, adverb s-v-o, front position appositive, nominative absolute—the 3’s, 4’s, and 4a’s are susceptible to an error in logic called the “dangling modifier.” This expression always reminds me of a man forgetting to zip up after urinating, leaving his member dangling for the world to see. Let me explain. Any 3, 4, or 4a phrase that begins a sentence must always refer to the subject of the main clause. If it doesn’t, then it dangles. “Priced at only $25, I knew the garage-sale Hamilton watch was a bargain I couldn’t resist.” This 4-1-o unit isn’t so much dangling as misplaced, since the word it refers to, “watch,” is in the sentence. All one has to do it tuck it in after “watch” and the reader can go merrily on his way. The illogic is that the reader automatically assumes that “priced” must refer to the subject “I.” Here’s an example of a truly dangling 3-o: “Running across the wet floor, my feet slipped and I fell ingloriously on my butt.” This contains only a slight bit of illogic, since one could assume that feet might be running. But we know that a complete person, not just his feet, were doing the running. Here’s an example of the kind of sentence I got over and over again in student essays, one in which the empty pronoun “it” becomes the subject. “Reviewing the novel The Catcher in the Rye, it’s obvious why some libraries banned the book.” [Who’s doing the reviewing?] Here’s another: “In the story ‘A Good Long Sidewalk,’ it tells about prejudice.” The reader just sort of shakes his head to sort out the ideas. Don’t make him do that. This last example has a dangling 1-0, one which is far less common than a dangling 3 or 4 phrase. And here are two dangling adverbs that have suffered much controversy from strict grammarians over the years: “hopefully” and “thankfully,” suggesting “full of hope” and “full of thanks.” But often the speaker (the one with these feelings) isn’t in the sentence; thus the hopes and thanks are reflecting the mood of the speaker. “Hopefully, you’ll understand what I just said. Thankfully, here's one more example.” “Hopefully, a tsunami like the one that struck Japan will never hit our West Coast. Thankfully, it never has.” Then there are a number of other adverbs that are close to these two, grammatically called disjuncts, but which are now considered acceptable: oddly, luckily, fortunately, apparently, presumably, happily, sadly, mercifully. Isn’t this fun? Remember, zip it up. Don’t let your member dangle.
Wednesday, October 5
My daughter Laura and her partner, Brian Jackson, decided finally to get married, a decision we had wished for a long time. They live in Kentucky, and everyone knows that Kentucky, although lovely, is a really different state, not just of mind but of habit and speech. The wedding was about as unplanned and informal an affair as I've ever seen. Unplanned, but wonderful in a funny, happy Kentucky way. It was set for around 4:30 Saturday afternoon. On Friday, she began making her wedding cake and finished it in a flash, and it was beautiful—four layers in two tiers with light yellow frosting, and peach-colored flowers, and the cutest frog couple on top. Laura is one of the fastest, most proficient cake makers of all time. There, the cake was done. She bought Brian's ring and her wedding dress at 1:00 Saturday afternoon. Neither of them seemed to be anxious about the approaching deadline And it all came off without a hitch. In fact, the day was chilly and overcast, but when I led her from the house and up the hill to where the justice-of-the-peace, Brian, and Brian’s father stood, accompanied not by “Here Comes the Bride” but most appropriately for this happy occasion by "Dueling Banjos," the clouds parted and the sun shone . . . for exactly fifteen minutes, after which the clouds melded again. It was like a quarter hour blessing on the union. They were married in their back yard under a huge oak tree, the vows tying in with trees and roots and leaves in a wonderful extended metaphor. The groom wore overalls and the bride was in a tiny floral dress and top, and because the ground leading up to the tree was too soft for the heels she was wearing, Laura kicked off her shoes and became a barefoot Kentucky beauty. Don’t misunderstand and think this was in any way mocking the solemnity of wedlock. Oh, how I hate that word, “wedlock.” It sounds too much like the clamping on of handcuffs and chains, and that’s not what marriage is about. Laura interrupted the justice halfway along and brought out from a pocket in her dress a silver flask, asking for just a moment. She handed it to Brian, who took a swallow, handed it to the justice, who took a swallow, and then herself took a swallow, after which the ceremony continued. After the “You may now kiss the bride,” after the kiss, after the congratulatory applause, Brian told me later he was worried that when I was asked “Who gives this woman?” I might have said, “I do, but I don’t think I will.” I assured him that I was happy, thrilled, to give away the bride. We love our daughter, but we also love Brian. And we couldn’t be happier with this event.
Tuesday, October 4
I have an unusual relationship with our old cat Dusty. He’s been with us for just over thirteen years now, and was about three when we got him. Or he got us. We were so despairing after our little old girl Stephanie died that we went to the animal shelter and came back with not one to replace her, but two. Squeakie, a female calico, was tiny and Dusty, a male tabby, was full grown, but they were best of buddies. So much so that Squeakie suckled on Dusty for nearly a year. Dusty wasn’t embarrassed by it, but we certainly were.
And now, Dusty is showing his age, growing skinnier and skinnier and losing more and more pep, his coat all snarly. Now he sort of wobbles when he walks and it takes him forever to lie down. I made the bad error two years ago of feeding him canned food. Now he won’t even consider hard food. I guess that’s good since he’s also lost most of his teeth. Which leads me to the unusual relationship. He now insists on being fed about every two hours. Not a large feeding, since he can only eat a little at a time. He’s also gone completely deaf and now can’t hear himself when he talks to me, talks very loudly like a crow cawing. My fix is that I can feed him when we go to bed, but two hours later he wants more, and then two hours later, and two hours after that until it finally gets to morning and I can arise for the day. Most nights, around midnight, he’ll crouch near my sleeping head and smack his lips, then touch my face with his whiskers. And if that doesn’t get me up, he squawks like a duck or caws like a crow and I’m up in an flash. I go to the kitchen, he wobbles along behind. I put a dish down and he may or may not like what it is. If not, I pop it in the microwave for ten seconds and he may or may not like it. I go back to bed and he returns sometime later. Two o’clock and we do it all again. And four o’clock again. And six o’clock when I finally give up and stay up for the day. If he liked one or two of the Fancy Feast varieties and stayed with them, I wouldn’t have a problem. But he’s so fussy that a variety he ate well for one week, he’ll turn up his nose the next week. Damn cat! But I love him dearly and will miss him when he’s gone.
Dusty in 2001.
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